The Other Critics

Burning Question: Why Aren’t More Restaurant Critics Women?

“It might be time for us to get bigger hats.” Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Corbis

In the past few weeks, there’s been talk about a possible divide in the food-writing world: The roles of food writers and editors seem split fairly evenly among men and women, but the same cannot be said for the role of the restaurant critic, where the divide currently favors more men. In fact, LA Weekly critic Besha Rodell recently posed the exact question: “Why is there such a small percentage of female critics, especially in high-prestige positions?” In an effort to start answering that question, Grub Street got on the phone with female food critics around the country and asked them about the critical gender divide, potential hiring obstacles, motherhood, sexist reactions to reviews, and lots more. Read on to see what everyone has to say.

• What, If Anything, Is Missing From the Restaurant Conversation If a City’s Major Critics Are All Men?

Ruth Reichl (New York Times, 1993-1999): Are we missing something if we don’t have female critics’ voices? Absolutely. I do think that women often look at the world in a different way than men do … If you’re going to make a generalization about how men and women experience a restaurant, men tend to see it much more food-first, and women tend to see it more experientially.

S. Irene Virbila (Los Angeles Times): Editors aren’t looking as much for thoughtful, nuanced reviews, but something that’s provocative and in-your-face. There are more men with a writing style like that than there are women. I’d say of the women critics I’ve read, they tend to be more alert to what’s going on around them and the life of the restaurant.

Mimi Sheraton (New York Times, 1975-1983): The men write differently. They write in a more brazenly, sure-footed tone of voice. I don’t want to say belligerent, but there’s a hard edge. And yes, I think a woman does see things a man doesn’t see.

Besha Rodell (LA Weekly): I probably talk a little bit more about emotion in my reviews than my male counterparts, but that’s just me. I wouldn’t say another woman would necessarily do that. I know some female critics who use, for lack of a better word, masculine language. I love that writing. I strive to make my writing feel stronger and more powerful.

Devra First (Boston Globe): It’s not as if women like salads and men like red meat. But it’s not always not true, either. I wonder sometimes, in my writing, if I gravitate towards lighter food, or away from giant food. I think it’s possible that women critics think more about the health aspects than men do … [But] chefs of all genders are becoming more interested in vegetables and the possibilities that they present.

• Do Traditional Gender Roles Lead to More Men Pursuing Critic Jobs?

First: Speaking critically isn’t behavior that’s necessarily desirable or encouraged in women. It’s a similar question about why there aren’t more women in finance. You can’t be worried about whether people like you. You have to feel comfortable being fair. And sometimes fair isn’t sweet … I have felt very supported in my criticism and encouraged to be critical by the male editors I’ve worked with … I have also worked one-on-one with male editors lower on the totem pole who — it seemed — were less comfortable giving my critical voice free reign. And that was an extremely unpleasant, difficult, frustrating, maddening experience. So perhaps as important as having women critics is having editors, men and women, who are supportive and comfortable with having a woman not make nicey-nice.

Reichl: There’s a bit of the attitude that somehow a man has more authority. That said, Mimi Sheraton is by the far the most assertive critic the Times has ever had.

Sheraton: I think women want these jobs. Everybody wants to be a critic. I’m sure there are women who would have loved to have [the restaurant-critic job] at the Times when Pete [Wells] got it. I even heard of one or two … I don’t think there’s any woman who didn’t want it.

Virbila: In the last two years, the amount of people I have writing to me who dream of becoming a restaurant critic has gone up exponentially — more women than men. The sense of glamour is ricocheting around the food world. Being a critic is not a glamorous job. If you’re smart, you’ll go after a food editor’s job, which is broader and more interesting.

• What Role Does Motherhood — or Potential Motherhood — Play?

Ligaya Mishan (New York Times, “Hungry City”): When I was approached by the Times, I was just about to have a baby. Working freelance made a lot of sense, and not writing every week made a lot of sense. And when they asked me to write every week, my daughter was only 3, and I turned it down because I didn’t think I could fit that into life. But then I realized if I didn’t say yes, they would give it to someone else, and I wouldn’t write for them at all. I made that choice. Around the time that Sam [Sifton] left, Pete [Wells] actually said that I should put myself forward for Sam’s spot … We had a long talk about what it would mean to go out to eat five nights a week. That’s a lot of time away from a 3-year-old. It’s a game that’s for young women, or for older women with older kids.

First: Critic hours are the same as chef hours. They’re mom hours. I have a 15-month-old, and I have older stepdaughters, which works out well. But it’s complicated in terms of childcare.

Dara Grumdahl (Mpls.St.Paul Magazine): I have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old. When I left City Pages, New Times had bought it, and I was five months pregnant. They announced a policy that women could no longer use their vacation time for maternity leave. That’s why I left. If I hadn’t had another critic job to go to, there would have been no possible way to remain a restaurant critic without maternity leave. I spent more than $30,000 on full-time daycare. How many people make that decision to spend $30,000 to keep a restaurant-critic job? Most critic jobs are not pulling down Anna Wintour money. And when I had full-time daycare for two kids, I still had to get a sitter when I wanted to go out at night. There’s no conversation in this country about the real advantage that men have at that juncture. Every time I could’ve left my job, I could’ve been replaced by a man. If there are 100 critics — 50 men and 50 women — 10 women keep dropping out because they’re up against kid stuff. One of the reasons I was willing to pay $30,000 to keep my job is because I knew if I left, that was it. You don’t get your job back.

Sheraton: I didn’t become a full-time critic until my son was in college. I did intermittent stories, but even by that time, he was 15 or 16 and could go across the street to a restaurant and get dinner, or I would come home and fix his dinner and then go out. Once I became a full-time critic, I don’t know that I could have done that. I would not want to leave my children alone every night for dinner.

• Is There Gender-Specific Backlash to Reviews?

First: I do think that readers react differently when they know something is said by a woman versus a man. There are times you get backlash, and you think, If a man had written that, would he have received the same reaction? At one point, I wanted to do an experiment writing under a man’s byline, or a gender-neutral byline, just to see if people would react differently. But I think people are more used to me now. Women might feel more internal pressure to be nice and soften the blow, and I imagine that everyone reacts to that differently — if you’re going to pull punches or not. Maybe you react to that pressure by being even tougher.

Gael Greene (New York, 1968-2002): For the first several years, I never revealed that I was a woman — Gael being a name for a man or a woman. I did feel that there was a prejudice against women at the time, and then when I got divorced, I thought that I should advertise that I was free. I then revealed that I was a woman. I have not thought of that in recent years. I think we can be as mean and opinionated and brilliant as anybody. Why not? … You could say it’s harder for women to be chefs. But I don’t think anybody has responded in a more negative way to a female critic.

Mishan: Whenever you write anything, you open yourself up to wonderful comments and hostile ones. I don’t think women are more sensitive in this regard. I think I’m sensitive. Sometimes people refer to me as “that girl” — that’s the only thing. They need some kind of epithet, and they want to use some kind of diminishing word.

Virbila: [On Red Medicine’s decision to kick her out, distribute photos of her once-anonymous face, and call her “unnecessarily cruel and irrational”] I think they would never have done that to a male critic. But that’s just my hunch … What’s upsetting about it is that they were all in it together, and they waited 45 minutes to do it. I asked the manager who shoved a camera in my face, “If you were going to throw us out, why would you wait 45 minutes?” He said, “I was just waiting for the right angle.”

Grumdahl: Of course you get sexism, and you get weird stalkers. There’s gender-specific name calling, and the frequency with which it’ll go to, I’ll rape you … Someone called me a “Nazi cunt.” That’s just part of the internet, unfortunately … But things are changing: I don’t know about restaurant criticism, but my success is built on all the women food professionals before me. Ruth Reichl could have one kid; I could have two. Mimi Sheraton is a hero to me. They faced a different kind of sexism. They went right through it.

• Should Media Outlets Consider Gender When Hiring New Critics?

Reichl: I think it should be something that we’re hyperaware of, just as we should be aware of all kinds of diversity … Whether men or women have different points of view — people with different ethnic identifies have different points of view … I would hope that next time the New York Times goes looking for a critic, they look to a woman. Or I hope they give the big-deal job to Ligaya, because she’s such a pleasure to read.

Mishan: If at some point [the lead Times critic] job would open, they might not want to choose from within the newspaper again. It might be time to cast a wider net. I don’t know if I’d be considered, but at some future point — and this is something that men don’t do, actually — according to the Lean In philosophy, I should be saying, “Totally, I’d be the critic!” But that’s not how I operate, and that may be because I’m a woman or a personal thing. I’d be honored to be considered, and would consider it at some point in the future. My daughter’s about to start kindergarten, which will be this miraculous change in my life. I can see time freeing up to do more.

Sheraton: I don’t think [hiring a woman] is the highest priority. It’s about getting the best person. It’s a very hard job to find a specialty writer in any field.

Rodell: My current paper is pretty much run by women from the top down. It does take somebody thinking about it. The perception, if you don’t really think about it, is that the person who’s the most qualified and powerful will be a man … I talked about the Eater hires: They were obviously looking for credibility. They wanted names that would bring a huge amount of respect to this new venture, and the truth of it is that most of those names are men.

First: I don’t think we should deliberately set out to hire women critics. I would prefer it if we dealt with this issue — if there’s a discrepancy — from the early years. Let’s teach women in school to be comfortable thinking critically … I want the reader to look to the person with the best voice. I’m not saying that I’m that person — and a man would never say that. He would just go right ahead … But it’s no secret that people putting together an editorial staff look at balance of hires. All other things being equal, it’s valid to look at that balance.

Burning Question: Why Aren’t More Restaurant Critics Women?